Tantalising Trinidad de Cuda

Written by Juliet Barclay, photographed by Jorge Gavilondo

Cuba’s a much larger island than most people imagine. The differing character of its provinces and cities comes as a delightful surprise to those that pay the place the compliment of exploring it. Spread out along its length like a 16th-century join-the-dots game are las siete villas, the seven towns set up in the early 1500s by the energetic Spanish entrepreneur Diego Velázquez de Cuellar. Each of them merits attention for very different reasons, but Trinidad de Cuba is especially blessed with an irresistible blend of urban sophistication and rustic charm, set off by the exuberant vegetation and dramatic mountains with which it is surrounded. It can be remarkably chilly in Havana during the winter months when the Atlantic storms crash against the sea wall, and around Christmas the city frequently fills with disgruntled sunseekers from northern climes who have had to abandon their Speedos in favour of jumpers, anoraks and cups of hot chocolate. But those in the know don’t hang around shivering and moaning masochistically about the effects of global warming: they pack the factor 30 and head for Cuba’s Caribbean coast, only a few hours’ drive from Havana.

Trinidad has none of the Cuban capital’s stately grandeur, seeming by comparison a doll’s-house town. It is breathtakingly pretty, with miniature mansions set out neatly around its captivating Plaza Mayor, full of flowers, palms, benches and nobly guarded by elegant cast-iron greyhounds. Radiating out from the Plaza are winding, cobbled streets lined with houses whose facades are restrained to the point of humility but whose interior proportions speak eloquently of the grand society gatherings enjoyed there in the town’s heyday.

Trinidad’s fortunes were based initially upon its useful geographical position for 16th-century Spanish empire-builders, and later upon the fertile Valley of the Sugar Mills nearby. The valley, together with the city, has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, and there are few views as beautiful as the low winter sun glowing through its seemingly endless vista of feathery cane flowers, framed on either side by dramatic mountains. Unlike the English sugar islands, where grand houses were built on the plantations rather than in town, the Valley of the Sugar Mills is scattered with diminutive fincas, really little more than Neoclassical cottages, some with additional architectural follies such as the Manaca-Iznaga tower, from which the slaves were called in from the sugar fields. The proportions of the buildings may be unassuming but their proud, cultured, competitive owners filled them with the decorative trophies of their summer sojourns in Europe, set off with furniture and fittings produced with consummate skill by local cabinet-makers from the cedar and mahogany which grew in the nearby forests. The wealthier of the sugar-planters even went so far as to import their own artists from Italy, and several of Trinidad’s early 19th -century residences are embellished with trompe-l’oeil classical motifs and Arcadian landscapes crammed with rushing rivers, towering peaks, picturesque flocks of sheep and besmocked rustics.

Colour is the key in Trinidad; the whole place fizzes with it. The houses are painted in every conceivable shade from sugar-candy pink, acid lemon, pale pistachio and double cream to bruise, bile and a particularly startling shade of turquoise which gives rise to the reflection that someone must have overestimated the materials required for the refurbishment of the municipal swimming pool. Inside the front doors, paint effects rise to crashing crescendos, with marbling, stippling and stencilling adding to the cheerful chaos, contrasting chaotically with the smooth, dark, sober surfaces of beautiful mahogany furniture set in formal groups round the rooms. Elegant, restrained and exquisitely made, these are pieces past compare. Luckily for those with the time to wait, local craftsmen are still able to achieve the high standards of a less industrial age, when the maker delighted in the perfection of a curve or the depth and lustre of a polished surface.

Occasionally, specialists from the top London auction houses stray innocently into Trinidad during escapist flights from the pressures of the international arts world, only to find themselves pitched into a busman’s holiday during which they plot and scheme about how to export and sell Trinidad’s moveable decorative riches. Their machinations are to no avail, however: it has all been declared National Heritage, and woe betide the unwary visitor who tries to flout those laws—even the export from Cuba of the humblest of nursery rocking-chairs can take months of complicated negotiation, accompanied by the seemingly ceaseless expenditure of not inconsiderable fees.

Trinidad’s architecture is remarkable.?Whereas in Havana wealth was expressed in stately piles of masonry fashioned in a “tropical baroque’’ variation on Andalucian building styles, Trinidad’s style is all its own: a charming, playful take on Neoclassicism expressed in wood and plaster, painted in riotous colours and finished with gold and silver leaf. The mood is distinctly Frenchified, in keeping with the holiday mood of the Caribbean coast. And what beaches! The nearby Ancon peninsula has miles of the most perfect sand and sea imaginable. The water is pale turquoise and as clear as air, and here there are none of the crowds that pour in and out of Varadero from every part of the globe—at dawn one often has the beach to oneself, with only a few somnolent sunseekers appearing by lunchtime. During the summer, Trinidad is very seriously hot, but the seasonal light effects are superb as huge thunderclouds mass over the blue mountains, sweeping clouds of rain disappear as swiftly as they arrived, patches of bright sun sparkle on newly wet vegetation and vivid rainbows shimmer amongst the peaks.

Not least of the town’s charms are the Trinitarios themselves. The Habaneros tend to pour scorn on their rustic relatives with titanic teases about their sleepy provincial character. The implication is that the Trinitarios are laid-back beyond belief and won’t do anything today that they can possibly put off until tomorrow. A government propaganda poster spotted recently on the road to Trinidad read “Millions of people sleep on the streets; none of them are Cubans’’; some habanero wag had crossed out the last five words and inserted “All of them are Trinitarios’’. It is true that conversations with them are sometimes conducted at so relaxed a pace that one wonders whether one’s acquaintance may be dropping off to sleep before one’s eyes but the invitation to a drink or to dinner can be relied upon to galvanise even the sleepiest of Trinitarios into sparkling conversational action or a sweatily seductive salsa, in an old tiled courtyard, with bougainvillea tumbling over the walls and a large alligator languishing in a tank under the guava trees.

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